Open sesame for mobile radio networks

Open sesame for mobile radio networks

11 March 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Five of the world’s largest telecoms groups have announced an accelerated programme to implement open 4G and 5G this year. Alan Burkitt-Gray looks at why the field has suddenly opened up

There’s an old story about waiting ages for a London bus, and then three come along at once. That can equally be applied to open radio access network (open RAN or O-RAN) equipment and projects — schemes to open up, literally, the market for mobile telecoms equipment.

A couple of years ago, open RAN was still largely a dream among CTOs of mobile operators, annoyed at being locked for years into one of the big three or four equipment suppliers: Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and ZTE.

Even in early 2020, as pressure on Huawei and ZTE mounted, people who talked of open RAN being an alternative were looked at as if they’d attempted to pay their fare on that London bus with a £50 note.

(Explanatory note for non-Londoners: you haven’t been able to use cash for bus fares since 2014; even before then, anyone offering a large note would have been given a quick lesson in our fruity language.)

But now, in 2021, there is a whole long row of bright red buses eager to pick up passengers. Open RAN is the industry’s favourite topic.

If there is one big breakthrough in the industry’s sentiment it was the decision in January by Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone — joined two weeks later by TIM, the former Telecom Italia — to embrace open RAN. The five operators have 1.5 billion customers between them.

Join forces

At the time, Claudia Nemat (pictured), the CTO of Deutsche Telekom, said: “Deutsche Telekom is committed to its promotion, development and adoption to ensure the best network experience for our customers. To seize this opportunity, it is critical that we join forces with our leading European partners to foster a diverse, competitive and secure 4G/5G ecosystem based on open RAN solutions.”

Her opposite number at Orange, Michaël Trabbia, commented: “Open RAN is the next major evolution of 5G RAN. Orange believes it is a strong opportunity for existing and emerging European actors to develop O-RAN based products and services, starting with indoor and rural areas.” And Telefónica CTIO Enrique Blanco said: “Open RAN is the natural evolution of radio access technologies and it will be key for 5G networks.”

They were joined by Johan Wibergh. He has been Vodafone’s group CTO for the past almost six years but before that was head of Ericsson’s networks business unit. “Open RAN has the power to stimulate European tech innovation using the expertise of the companies that develop it and the governments who support it,” he said.

“Opening up the market to new suppliers, with our ambition and government advocacy, will mean faster 5G deployment, cost-saving network efficiencies and world-class services.”

And then in early February, when TIM joined what has become the world’s most powerful open RAN club, its CTIO, Michele Gamberini, explained: “TIM’s commitment to the creation of an O-RAN ecosystem, in addition to supporting Italian companies already developing solutions for new generation mobile networks, represents a solid opportunity to ensure our country plays a leading role as a provider of technologies for the digital transformation on a European scale.”

He said that TIM’s decision to join means it “is reinforcing its commitment to contribute to the development of open RAN technology in Europe”.

TIM managed to do something that the other four groups hadn’t: attach the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that all five now adhere to. This made it clear that membership of the alliance is limited to operators with “operation at least in one European country”. Fortunately for operators from Norway, Russia, Switzerland and the UK — among others — the terms of the MoU do not specify European Union members only.

Global ecosystem

The aims, TIM reveals, are to “provide a framework for a specific commitment to support the development of a non-fragmented global open RAN ecosystem for deployment across the European network footprint of each of the signatories, and to start operation as soon as solutions become mature enough for a given targeted use case”.

The MoU sets out a tight timescale for the work, with an action plan “of additional activities necessary to support the continued development of open RAN ecosystem and individual operational deployment of open RAN” due in six months. That means by August 2021.

Oh, and in case you wondered about the use of the terms open RAN and O-RAN, the MoU clarifies that “open RAN is understood as a more general term which denotes a disaggregated RAN, which is subdivided into several independent systems by using open and interoperable protocols and interfaces”, while O-RAN is the version of the “architecture as defined by the O-RAN Alliance”.

In fact, it’s worse. Eugina Jordan, a computing engineer who is VP of marketing at Parallel Wireless, counts four variations in her #OpenRANdailyFact on LinkedIn. And three of them have subtly different meanings. Open RAN is the overall open RAN movement of opening up interfaces, she writes. OpenRAN, without the space, is the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) unit that is promoting open RAN, “and anything related to TIP deployments”.

The third variation, O-RAN, refers explicitly to the O-RAN Alliance, a three-year-old industry grouping of mobile network operators, vendors and research and academic institutions that are working in the field.

The fourth version? That’s the hashtag version, #ORAN, because you can’t have hyphens in hashtags.

US-China-Europe-Japan alliance

The O-RAN Alliance was set up in February 2018 by three giant operators, AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange. (And if you suddenly wonder how, in this security-obsessed world, one of the largest US telcos can freely collaborate with the largest Chinese telco, you haven’t been paying attention.)

As Jordan says on LinkedIn, there are “too many organisations”. Because it doesn’t stop there. Not only is there TIP and the O-RAN Alliance, but also the long-serving mobile phone groupings. The GSMA, the trade association; 3GPP, the standards people; the Linux Foundation, which works on the development of open standards; and the Small Cell Forum, whose name precisely describes what it’s for. And then there’s the Open RAN Policy Coalition, described as “a group of companies formed to promote policies that will advance the adoption of open and interoperable solutions”.

The Open Five, as we might call that group of Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone, as it hasn’t chosen its own name yet, explicitly commit to the O-RAN Alliance and to other initiatives, such as TIP, “that contribute to the development of open RAN and that aim to create a healthy and competitive open RAN ecosystem and advance R&D efforts”, says the MoU. The TIP is backed by Facebook.

The five signatories so far commit to “readiness for initial commercial deployment in limited areas” from this year. “Limited” in that sense means “rural, indoor or highway coverage”. But they say they should be ready for network-wide roll-out next year. Meanwhile, if you’re seeking really top-level support for open RAN, look no further than Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

 Friend in high places

She’s been on the FCC since 2012, though there was a gap between January and August 2017, and has a good chance of being confirmed as the full-time chairwoman.

And she’s a long-term supporter of open RAN, she noted in September 2020, when she said: “I was actually the first commissioner at the agency to speak about the power of open radio access networks — more than a year ago.”

She said later: “Open RAN has extraordinary potential for our economy and national security. That combination is something to seize — especially right now in the early days of 5G wireless deployment.” She sees open RAN as a way of “building a new market for 5G. That is how we will restore American leadership and secure 5G.”

Politicians throughout the west have cited similar reasons. Early in 2020, as the Trump administration tightened its restrictions on Huawei, politicos in Washington, Westminster and elsewhere wondered what would happen if Ericsson or Nokia were hit with problems.

They haven’t, but look at the tally of US and European companies that have disappeared from the mobile equipment market over the past decade or two. The UK’s GEC was rebranded as Marconi and then imploded, just as did Canada’s Nortel. National and international regulators approved a series of mergers, step by step: in France there was Alcatel, and in Germany there was Siemens. In the US there was Lucent and Motorola. Where are they now? Merged with others to create that effective Ericsson-Nokia duopoly.

In London the politicians woke in early 2020 when they named Huawei a “high-risk company” — for reasons Huawei denies. Why was the UK industry, and that in other European countries, left with a duopoly? How did it happen? Because they hadn’t been watching and, largely, didn’t understand.

Centres of excellence

Casting around for ideas, the UK government alighted on the Japanese company NEC, which in December 2020 announced a centre of excellence, based in west London, to work on 5G open systems. It will also address the North American market, confirmed Yogarajah Gopikrishna, general manager of carrier solutions for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at NEC.

“We are looking at taking a large part of the 5G market,” he said. “Once the ecosystem is state-of-the-art” the project will also help to establish NEC’s position in 6G, the next generation of mobile. At the moment the industry is in the early stages of defining the requirements of 6G, before starting on R&D and standards towards the middle of the decade.

In an interview with Capacity, Gopikrishna said that the introduction of 5G is a “technological discontinuity” in mobile telecoms that will see major changes in the way things are done. In particular, “the RAN should be seamless with the IT”, he said. “There will be an IT-oriented architecture, which needs an open architecture, not locked into one vendor. The walls need to come down.”

One of the key gains is that the move will see an increase in the number of suppliers to the market, “to make sure there is sufficient competition”. There won’t just be NEC — though “we are RAN manufacturers ourselves, we understand” — but “new partner companies” will join the ecosystem, said Gopikrishna.

“We need to make sure they have the muscle in R&D,” he added. “That’s why NEC has invested in the centre of excellence.”